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07May 2019

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Highway to help scientific findings to clinic

Wilbert Zwart

Scientific findings have difficulty finding their way to the clinic. "We need to build a highway between science and the clinic. With traffic in both directions, of course," says Wilbert Zwart, researcher at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and, since last year, endowed professor at Eindhoven University of Technology. He will give his inaugural lecture in Eindhoven on May 10.

Wilbert Zwart's research team at the Netherlands Cancer Institute has discovered several biomarkers in recent years: biological properties that can predict disease progression or drug sensitivity. The team discovered a set of nine genes that together as a biomarker can predict how prostate cancer patients will fare, and whether they will respond to hormone therapy, which they are not currently receiving. With funding from Oncode, the researchers are currently working on a  clinical test.

Discovery versus application

The translation of biomarkers is often very difficult, though. Zwart: "Only a very small proportion of the biomarkers found actually become available as a test in the clinic. In science, unfortunately, the value of a discovery is considered higher compared to an application. And it's not so easy to find money for validation studies. At the same time, scientists have a social responsibility to take that crucial step." 


Zwart, therefore, argues in favor of a highway between the lab and the clinic. "It is essential that this is a two-way street," says Zwart. "Scientific findings must reach the clinic faster, and clinical observations and discoveries must be investigated earlier in the context of cancer biology. In 2000, for example, clinical researchers discovered a number of genes that are active in various breast cancer subtypes. 10 years later some of those genes were rediscovered in biological studies as being involved in breast cancer. This can be done much more efficiently." 

Lucky coincidence

Physicians and researchers must, therefore, talk to each other even more. Zwart: "In addition to stimulating partnerships, I sincerely believe in serendipity: a lucky coincidence. I think you can consciously seek for such coincidences. Spontaneous, unplanned interactions are crucial: a strategically placed coffee machine, an informal drink, a meeting during a conference. Without coincidence, one of the most successful breast cancer drugs would probably not have existed. Tamoxifen is actually a failed morning after pill."  

Wilbert Zwart was appointed endowed professor of Functional Genomics in Oncologyat the Department of Biomedical Technology at Eindhoven University of Technology last year. He recently became the chair of the Translational Research Board of the Netherlands Cancer Institute. Practical information about the inaugural speech on May 10 can be found on the TU's  website.

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